HIGHLANDS RANCH — For Kelly Murphy, the meeting was three years in the making, since a relative with mental illness got a gun and murdered a neighbor. Her resolve to stand up against gun violence solidified after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, when Murphy told herself that if teenagers could speak out on national television, it was time she, as an adult, took action.
For months she had planned this night. Murphy and two friends would host the first meeting of a new chapter of the grassroots gun violence prevention group, Moms Demand Action.
And four hours before the new neighborhood group met for the first time, as Murphy sat on a crinkly paper sheet at a doctor’s office waiting for a checkup, she learned via Facebook that her biggest fear was now happening.
Her children’s school, STEM School Highlands Ranch, was under fire.
“I jumped off the table and ran out and drove like 90 miles an hour to my kids’ school,” said Murphy, who lives near Columbine High School in Littleton, where two students killed 12 students and a teacher 20 years ago.
Murphy’s meeting, the first-ever for the Columbine neighborhood about 15 minutes from Highlands Ranch, was an offshoot of the Highlands Ranch chapter of Moms Demand Action, a nationwide group started within days of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Before the STEM shooting last week, the Highlands Ranch group’s previously planned, monthly meeting was anticipated as a fairly small event, the typical 25-30 moms meeting in a small room at the local library.
But after May 7, the day authorities say two students brought guns to STEM School and opened fire on their classmates, killing one and wounding eight, the number of RSVPs climbed to nearly 500. Organizers changed the venue to larger space in a local church. And they requested security, just in case residents who oppose gun reform showed up Monday night to protest.
Meanwhile, in the last week, more than 21,000 people have signed a petition circulated by “Protect Our Kids at School” — a Douglas County group formed the night of the shooting — calling for the installation of metal detectors in every school. It’s a proposal gun-reform advocates, including some members of Moms Demand Action, call a “Band-Aid fix.”
Protect Our Kids wants every teacher to have a panic button, every school to have only one point of entry.
This is a divided community, a traditionally conversative county that has grown less so in the past few years as more Democrats moved in and Highlands Ranch parents became more politically active, starting in 2017 with flipping a conservative school board that had pushed a private-school voucher program.
It’s the kind of place where people avoid talking politics to neighbors because there is at least a 50% chance they both would end up offended. And in the aftermath of a school shooting, as a shaken and fragile community tries to heal, it’s more evident than ever that politics can divide.
Parents, students and activists walk lightly, even now. This is not Parkland, where outspoken, politically engaged teenagers became national spokespeople for gun reform, elevated to celebrity status among peers across the country and attacked by some gun-rights advocates.
For a clear sign that points to the current state of fragility, consider the directions shared on social media for a rally the metal detector group has planned for this weekend in Denver:
“We ask that you do not bring signs advocating for or against gun control. Children walked out of their friend’s vigil because of politicians’ political agendas. Instead bring a sign with one of the many students’ names who have fallen victim to these tragedies that says (name here) is NOT a statistic!”
The Douglas County divide played out last week in real time as well-meaning students from Highlands Ranch High School held a “vigil” that looked more like a political rally little more than 24 hours after the shooting.
Dozens of STEM students in the audience began whispering and exchanging looks as speaker after speaker, including U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, both Democrats, talked about them as the latest victims of gun violence. After a girl who did not attend STEM gave a speech asking for change, a student shouted from the bleachers, packed with about 2,000 people, “Let STEM kids speak!”
They were invited to come to the microphone at the center of the gym, but instead walked out into a May snowstorm in protest. They came to honor their classmate and friend, Kendrick Castillo, who was shot to death last Tuesday, not to listen to politics. “Mental health!” they chanted, and also “F— the media!” after a student and a television station cameraman got into a verbal throwdown.
Half of the people in the gym left then, including parents who brought younger children and feared they were about to witness a brawl. Instead, STEM teenagers returned, and one by one, took the microphone. Most spoke of Castillo — “the man,” “a gentle soul,” a cheerful 18-year-old who lunged at a shooter and saved fellow students’ lives.
Their message was clear: It was too soon to talk about gun laws.
Just give them a moment.
“We came here to respect our brother Kendrick,” said one STEM high school student, whose mother would not let the media use his name. “We can’t be used as reasons for gun control. We are people, not a statement!”
“This is a mental health issue. We hope you all can see that,” said another STEM high schooler, as his classmates cheered and whistled. Meanwhile, “Team Enough” students from Highlands Ranch High, who organized the event, sobbed into the arms of their parents and teachers, stunned by how the night had gone off the rails.
Kaitlyn Hunter, a junior at STEM who wondered whether she was about to die as she waited out a lockdown in history class for 45 minutes last week, supports changes in gun laws and so do most of her peers, she said.
But as she and her classmates have met privately during the past week, to cry and share stories and process, it’s become clear that gun reform isn’t their collective goal.
“Instead of speaking about gun violence, which tends to separate the community, we really want to focus on mental health,” the 17-year-old said. “It’s a lot harder to argue right now that mental health isn’t an issue. In the long run, it will be more impactful.”
Another argument for not making gun reform their top priority? Adults have been arguing about it since Columbine, and “there is not a lot that has changed,” Hunter said.
STEM high school students, who number fewer than 500, are meeting in person but also circulating emails and connecting via Snapchat to throw out ideas for political change. When they speak out publicly, they hope to do it with “one voice,” Hunter said.
“We don’t want to divide ourselves right now,” she said.
It’s only been seven days since Hunter, working as a teacher’s aide in a sophomore world history class, heard the sirens blaring from the street. At first, the 30 or so kids in the upper-floor classroom lined with windows thought it was a car crash on the road below.
Then they heard the gunshots. And the screaming.
For a solid 45 minutes, the automated lockdown drill warning played on repeat. “Lockdown. Locks. Lights. Out of Sight.” Hunter shared her phone around the room so others could call their parents.
The scariest moment of all, she said, was when the SWAT team burst through the door. For that split second, as the door opened and she saw rifles, she thought she was about to die.
The Colorado leaders of the national student group March for Our Lives, which started after the shooting that killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, have been standing by to help STEM students figure out where to go from here. The group supports gun reform — including raising the national purchase age to 21 and banning assault rifles — but it is encouraging STEM kids to take a stand in whatever way they want.
“My entire job is trying to get students a place at the table,” said Emi Ambory, Colorado state director for the group and a senior at Fairview High in Boulder. She came to Highlands Ranch last week for the rally billed as a vigil and watched it spiral.
“In Parkland, it was students from the school who stood up,” Ambory said. At the vigil, in contrast, it felt like outsiders were writing STEM students’ story for them, she said.
“This is messy and we are kids,” she said. “It’s kind of hard to express what we want to say. We deserve change, but we deserve the change that we ask for. Yes we want to honor one another with action, but you need to give people a moment to heal.”
Maddie Provost, who leads the Douglas County chapter of March for Our Lives and is a junior at Rock Canyon High in Highlands Ranch, supports gun reform but said there is abundant reason to get behind a mental health campaign if that’s what STEM students want.
She and her friends are hoping to make a presentation to the Douglas County School Board asking that a mental health course is a requirement for graduation, just like health and physical education. They hope to work with STEM students but are giving them time.
“My school is very divided as well,” Provost said. “I’ve gotten in arguments. It’s a very wealthy community, and it’s hard for people to understand other perspectives because we are used to this amazing life.
“I just feel very passionately about not being afraid to go to the movie theater and go to school.”
Stacy Lynn Ravenscroft posted her petition on Facebook the night of the shooting, addressed to Gov. Jared Polis. It calls for metal detectors, door alarms and armed officers for every school, and for every teacher, panic buttons.
“This isn’t about right or left, gun control or no gun control,” she wrote. “This is about the safety of our children, and no matter what side of the fence you are on, we all share this common fear. Thoughts and prayers are always welcome and appreciated in times of tragedy and times of grief, but they’re not stopping this madness.”
The gun debate has only served to delay action, Ravenscroft, a Parker mother of seven children ages 6 months to 12 years, said during an interview. “We just want to keep the politics out of it. We want to stop the arguments and the fighting and find common ground. Right now, we need to make sure another student doesn’t lose their life.
“The next student who is shot — and there is going to be one — doesn’t have time for legislation,” she said.
The petition had hundreds of signatures within hours. It’s now approaching 22,000.
Mark Zoller Jr. was inspired that night to get involved, too. The Douglas County father of three boys created a Facebook group for school safety and joined forces with Ravenscroft after noticing her petition.
“Our schools are government buildings. Why are they not treated as such?” he asked, noting that buildings where lawmakers work have security cameras, metal detectors and armed guards. “I feel like we put kids last.”
Zoller does not support changes in law that would restrict gun rights. “When it comes to banning guns, I don’t see how that is going to help,” he said. “I don’t mind saying we demand something happen now. Not in a couple months. Not next time the ballots come out. Now!”
The new Douglas County group is planning a rally for metal detectors in Civic Center Park in Denver at noon Sunday and a second one on the Capitol steps in Denver on June 3.
They don’t want to talk about gun laws at either one of them.
Since the non-vigil that made national news, students and adults alike have been uneasy about what to say publicly.
Student walkouts planned at Highlands Ranch high schools, similar to those nationwide after the Parkland shooting, were canceled or reframed as mental health activism to avoid offending STEM students who asked not to politicize the tragedy.
At a Moms Demand Action meeting Monday night, 450 mostly women filled St. Andrew United Methodist Church, a high turnout despite that organizers did not publicize the location to avoid protests. The only bit of drama came when a man in the front row refused to stop filming with his phone. As he was escorted out, he said into his camera, “Apparently these progressives don’t want people to know their information.”
“Our entire community is grieving,” said Karin Asensio, who helped found the Highlands Ranch Moms Demand Action chapter in 2017. “We are all scared. How do we even start making sense of what happened?”
“Look around you. Look at how many of you are here tonight,” she said. “All of us here tonight are stunned, angry, sad and hopeless. Most of us have struggled with sleeping the last six nights and have wiped tears from our faces as we send our children back to school.”
Asensio wanted a normal, drama-free monthly meeting. The only difference was that it was revamped as an event for new members since hundreds of attendees were coming for the first time.
“I’m just tired of it. Something has to change,” said Katie Stadtmuller, a Littleton mom inspired by the STEM shooting to attend. “It’s hard to get past the pessimism that it doesn’t really matter to show up and try.”
Members of the group said they have been the target of negative comments from people with opposing views and accused of using the tragedy for political gain. Media was not invited to the unprecedentedly large meeting, or any monthly meetings, but The Colorado Sun was allowed to attend after agreeing not to publicize it in advance.
“I don’t feel like it should be controversial to say we want to reduce gun violence in our communities,” said Highlands Ranch resident Jenny Guenther, a Moms Demand Action co-leader. “I hate that it has to be a taboo thing to say, ‘Let’s reduce children’s access to firearms.’
“I feel like many people in this community see it as an either or — either mental health or reducing children’s access to firearms,” she said. “I see it as both.”
Fellow Moms member Murphy actually made it to the meeting she helped plan — the first meeting of the Columbine chapter — after finding her children at Northridge Rec Center, the designated “reunification” site after the shooting.
Murphy learned quickly that her fifth-grade daughter was safe — she was among the children spotted outside the school by a woman who could see the campus from her balcony and was texting people to let them know. It was hours before Murphy would learn her third-grade son was OK, too.
Seeing them at the rec center was all at once the worst and best moment of her life. Murphy’s 11-year-old daughter heard the sirens, the SWAT team’s footsteps on the roof, and listened for more than an hour to the lockdown message on repeat. The moment the little girl can’t get past is the one where the SWAT team burst through the door of the classroom, yelling “Hands on your heads!” and pointing rifles.
But on the way home that night, as Murphy told her husband on the phone that it was unbelievable that their children’s school was attacked the same day she was holding her first Moms Demand Action meeting, her daughter spoke from the back seat.
“You should still go, Mom,” she said. “You should go to help other people.”
To make a donation to shooting victim Kendrick Castillo’s family: The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office is asking people to stop at any Wells Fargo Bank and ask to contribute to the “Kendrick Castillo Memorial Fund.”